Duke enters 2016-’17 basketball season as nation’s #1 team

The preseason USA Today/Coaches Poll is out, and not surprisingly Duke holds the top spot, directly ahead of Kansas, defending national champion Villanova, Kentucky, and Oregon (the team that eliminated the Blue Devils in the Sweet 16 last year in Anaheim). (My best friend and I were in attendance for that loss.)

This Duke team is going to draw early comparisons to the 2014-’15 national champion squad, namely because of all the freshmen talent. The team from two years ago featured Jahlil Okafor (#1), Tyus Jones (#7) and Justise Winslow (#12) — three of the top high school prospects in the country that year — and this year’s includes 4 of the top-12 according to Rivals dot com.

Beyond that obvious similarity, I think the national title team carried some easily identifiable advantages. They finished 3rd in the country in offensive efficiency (122.5 points per 100 possessions), and rode Okafor, Miles Plumlee and Amile Jefferson to the #12 defensive efficiency (90 points per 100 possessions). It was a balanced team that was no fluke to win it all, but it was always clear that the paint was Duke’s primary strength.

I really liked last season’s Duke team that finished 25-11 and lost in the Sweet 16, but when Jefferson went down with a season-ending injury that was pretty much it. He did receive a medical redshirt from NCAA, so he’ll be back for this year’s team — a veteran who could average something in the area of 8.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game if given 30 minutes of action. Also, defense.

With freshman Jayson Tatum going down with a foot injury and Harry Giles missing the beginning of the regular season — two presumed starters and two of the top-3 prospects in last year’s high school class — I imagine head coach Mike Krzyzewski will roll with a starting 5 of something like this:

G - Frank Jackson (Fr)
G - Grayson Allen (Jr)
G - Matt Jones (Sr)
G - Luke Kennard (So)
F - Amile Jefferson (Sr)

While a four-guard lineup isn’t ideal, it’s a lineup that can matchup with most teams. All four guards are listed at at least 6’3″, with Kennard being the tallest at 6’6″. And when Coach K wants to play big he has freshman Marques Bolden (6’10”), sophomore Chase Jeter (6’11”),  senior Sean Obi (6’9″) and others.

By the time Tatum (6’8″) and Giles (6’10”) return, there aren’t a lot of teams who have a better combination of talent and depth.

The oddsmakers in Las Vegas agree. Per Bovada, Duke opens the season at +350 favorites to win the national title in 2016-’17, ahead of the usual suspects:

Kansas: +900
Kentucky: +1000
Arizona: +1400
Oregon: +1400
North Carolina: +1600
Wisconsin: +1600

Duke opens at 3.5/1, and the next best club is at 9:1. That’s a pretty sizable gap between the favorite and the second-favorite, which underscores just how much high-end NBA talent the Blue Devils boast this season.

It’s early and I can’t vouch for the credentials of NBA Draft Room, but their 2017 mock draft projects five Duke players to go in the first round, including Giles (#1 overall), Tatum (4th), Jackson (19th), Bolden (21st) and Allen (23rd). It could be a children’s website or it could be made up by some random person like me, but it’s nonetheless a fair representation of the caliber of Duke’s roster.

Duke’s season doesn’t start until November 11th, where they will take on Marist college in what will likely be a 111-64 blowout win.

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